Interview: Author Mark Cocker

How one man turned a five-acre patch of land in Norfolk into a habitat-rich area for wildlife

 Mark Cocker

Mark Cocker

No birder can fail to get excited about going to Norfolk, but my trip was not going to be just
a birding experience, but also a chance to interview, work with, laugh with and share
a ‘little bit’ of moaning with Mark Cocker. Yes work!

As he details in his most recent book, Our Place, Mark bought himself five acres in 2012 from the proceeds of one of his books, Birds and People. At one time, the land would have been described as ‘fields’ by the River Yare, but nature had other ideas and left to its own devices had slowly turned open ground to willow scrub. With the accumulation of leaf litter and roots, it would have one day turned to mature woodland.

Clearing areas of scrub painstakingly with a bushman saw, Mark was gaining some useful firewood as well as time to think about his writing. Working alongside Mark, I was asked to cut up some recent ‘felled’ willow, stacking the smaller branches and piling the large trunks to eventually dry out and then take to his home, cut up as logs.

Mark first showed me around his ‘showpiece’. After only six years he had certainly turned the site into a mixture of habitats, with mature willow scrub, coppiced growth, tall herbs, reedbeds, draining ditches and a small area of field, grazed by the local Chinese Water Deer. The aim is to attract Norfolk Hawkers to buzz around the area, Elephant Hawk Moths to the Willowherb and Fen Raft Spider to the dykes.

Mark, of course, has several books to his name, a mixture of biography, history and memoir. They include Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet (2014), shortlisted for several awards (including the Thwaites/Wainwright Prize) and winner of the New Angle Prize. Crow Country was nominated for a Samuel Johnson Prize. Birds and People (2013),
a collaboration with photographer David Tipling, was published to international acclaim, and the two were shortlisted for six literary awards including the Thwaites/Wainwright Prize.

In 2016, Mark was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of East Anglia.

Lots of different species

David Tipling was not just a friend and collaborator, but used to be his neighbour in the woodland/habitat business. Long discussions about the world of nature took place either on his or Mark’s land. Hard days thinking about future ideas and even books came out of these discussions. David has now sold up next door and bought a wood closer to home in north Norfolk.

Wandering around the land to see Mark’s past work, we stopped at a mature Oak which, given its age, had not been planted by Mark. Given the distance to the next mature Oak where the acorn had come from, it must have been planted by a Jay carrying and burying the acorn ready for a winter meal, then forgetting it. Here, the 600 species of birds, mammals, bumblebees, dragonflies, butterflies, macro and micro moths already recorded on the site were added to when Mark spotted not one but two species of moth using the lichen on his oak as camouflage. Although not ID’d straight away, the wide depth of knowledge Mark has as a naturalist, shone through, as he gave the Latin names of possible species.

In his younger days, his experience led to him to work for organisations like the old Nature Conservancy Council on Holkham NNR in Norfolk, for the RSPB working on species protection on a pair of Parrot Crossbills in the Holkham car park, and for Birdlife International. Mark has also guided for holiday companies such as Limosa and Naturetrek.

Talking to him, I got a good insight into a how a book is constructed. For example, Mark walked 30 miles of the 62-mile long Norfolk Coast Path while writing his latest volume. Not the longest walk in Britain, but it covered many areas of land now protected by conservation organisations, like the RSPB, Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. Many walkers walk at speed, but Mark was doing as little as a mile an hour, due to his naturalist’s instinct, wanting to ID as much as possible along the way. He was seeing part of the success of Operation Neptune, a programme set up by the National Trust to buy 900 miles of coastline (today it owns 775 miles).

Mark explained to me that the purchase of the ‘Flow Country’ in northern Scotland was one of the RSPB’s finest hours.

“Described as ‘Britain’s last wilderness, the Flow Country’s premier parts were bought by the RSPB to protect it from forestry and wind farms and has led to the organisation’s single largest landholding, a whopping 52,000 acres.” The RSPB is now promoting an area of Scotland desperate for ‘wildlife tourism’.

Bird song

The Great Fen Project is another scheme joining land together to protect water levels and other factors which make the land tick.

“Too many reserves are ‘islands’ and need connecting to give wildlife a better chance,” said Mark.

 Brimstone Butterfly Naturepix/Alamy

Brimstone Butterfly
Naturepix/Alamy

While working hard on the willow scrub, we stop for a while to watch a Brimstone butterfly cross our path. This was the first butterfly of the year for me, having come from ‘up north’!

The list of bird song was added to by a Willow Warbler fresh in from Africa, along with three other warblers – Chiffchaffs loving the scrub, Cetti’s preferring scrub with reeds growing through it, and Blackcaps enjoying the brambles found in Mark’s brash piles, keeping the deer at bay.

Warblers still to arrive on Mark’s land include Whitethroat plus Garden, Grasshopper, Sedge and Reed Warblers. “Not many of those where you come from,” said Mark, meaning the Cetti’s Warbler. “We’ve had records from Walney to Siddick Pond. There are breeding birds as far north as Leighton Moss on the west and Teesside on the east,” was the reply.

This brought us on to ‘twitching’, which Mark used to do but not anymore.

“To think I once drove overnight from Scilly to Aberdeen to see an Isabelline Wheatear!” he said. I couldn’t beat that. “I did once sleep in when my mate had to wake me up to go for a Red-flanked Bluetail at St Abbs”, is all I could respond with.

His all-round naturalist’s cap gave him the rarest bird he ever found, while looking for the Great Yellow Bumblebee in the Outer Hebrides. He happened to be around Tarbert on Harris when he spotted a dream bird – a White-throated Needletail! 

“It is, in fact, the world’s fastest bird in level flight,” he said. “Unbelievable though it seemed to us, the eighth example ever to be seen on these islands was suddenly careering overhead.”

His most amusing moment came the following day. “Watching one friend go from gibbering anxiety to exultant delirium (when he finally saw the bird) was like watching an addict eventually get his fix!”

Mark Cocker – book research

 Green Woodpecker Nik Goulthorp/Alamy

Green Woodpecker
Nik Goulthorp/Alamy

We were soon back to reality, with a Green Woodpecker yaffling behind us, and soon more sawing was in progress. Both a Buzzard and a Kestrel made their appearance, while Mark told me of other records from his patch, such as Marsh Harrier and the sound of Cranes flying over.

We were soon back talking about the present book. “I read 50 books in one year to research this book,” he said (I hate to think how many Mark read for ‘Birds and People’, covering 592 pages!). Mark needed so much up to date information to write this new book – including minutiae such as the cost of fertilisers, and then the cost of removing the same fertiliser as a result of the damage it was doing to waterways. Mind-blowing stuff!

Mark explained that there was a limit to how much he could write in one book, nevertheless, but that he felt he had covered all the major aspects of his subject – whether or not we can save Britain’s wildlife. One interesting feature we talked about was that women created the RSPB 125 years ago, followed by years of it being dominated by men, but that now it is hard to go to a reserve and not find women working in major roles.

It was soon time for me to move on, leaving Mark to carry on his good work with a student, soon to arrive to do his stint at clearing willow and learn about writing from Mark. He still teaches writing as well as nature to groups.

“For me these days, the ideal wildlife walk is one where you don’t actually move because there is so much extraordinary life to see on one spot,” he said.

Mark’s time in Norfolk may be coming to an end, as his roots in Derbyshire are calling and he will have to sell his beloved wood, but wherever he ends up, more brilliant books will be coming our way in the future.

About Mark Cocker

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Mark Cocker is an author of creative non-fiction. He is also a naturalist and environmental tutor, who writes and broadcasts on nature and wildlife in a variety of national media. This year, he releases a new book Our Place (Cape) on the fate of British nature since the beginning of the 20th Century. He has travelled in more than 50 countries on six continents, and in 1999 was awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to study birds in magico-medicinal practices in Benin and Cameroon. For the last 35 years his home has been in Norfolk, where much of his spare time is devoted to the restoration of a small wooded fen called Blackwater. He is married to the arts professional Mary Muir.

Birdwatching in Exmoor

Words and photos (unless stated): Ed Hutchings

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Exmoor, with its wonderfully wooded valleys attractive to birds, is loosely defined as an area of hilly open moorland in west Somerset and north Devon. It is the prettier of Devon’s two National Parks, whereas Dartmoor is much bleaker. Yet Somerset could boldly claim Exmoor to be its National Park. The total area of the Exmoor National Park is 267.5 square miles, of which 71% is in Somerset and 29% in Devon. Heather moorland, tumbling streams, wooded valleys and fields, plus a stretch of coastline; such a diverse array of habitats gives this small National Park a good range of bird species.

The upland area is underlain by sedimentary rocks dating from the Devonian and early Carboniferous periods, with Triassic and Jurassic age rocks on lower slopes. Where these reach the coast, cliffs are formed that are cut with ravines and waterfalls. The highest point on Exmoor is Dunkery Beacon. At 519m, it is also the highest point in Somerset.

Terrain here supports lowland heath communities, ancient woodland and blanket mire which provide a habitat for some scarce flora and fauna. There have also been reports of ‘The Beast of Exmoor’, a cryptozoological cat roaming Exmoor. With such an expanse of virtual wilderness, are such claims too far-fetched?

In addition to the Exmoor Coastal Heaths SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific , Interest) two other areas are specifically designated. North Exmoor covers 29,666 acres and includes the Dunkery Beacon and the Holnicote and Horner Water Nature Conservation Review sites and the Chains Geological Conservation Review site. The Chains site is nationally important for its southwestern lowland heath communities and for its transitions from ancient woodland through upland heath to blanket mire.

The site is also of importance for its breeding bird communities, its large population of the nationally rare Heath Fritillary, an exceptional woodland lichen flora and its palynological interest of deep peat on the Chains.

 Pied Flycatcher vario images GmbH & Co.KG/Alamy

Pied Flycatcher
vario images GmbH & Co.KG/Alamy

South Exmoor SSSI is smaller, covering 7,741 acres and including the River Barle and its tributaries, with submerged plants such as Alternate Water-milfoil. There are small areas of semi-natural woodland within the site, including some which are ancient. The most abundant tree species is Sessile Oak, the shrub layer is very sparse and the ground flora includes bracken, Bilberry and a variety of mosses.

The heaths have strong breeding populations of birds, including Whinchat and Stonechat. Wheatear are common near stone boundary walls and other stony places. Grasshopper Warblers breed in scrub and tall heath. Trees on the moorland edges provide nesting sites for Lesser Redpoll, Buzzard and Raven. Sparrowhawk, Woodcock and Kingfisher are to be found all year round.

Uncultivated heath and moorland cover about a quarter of Exmoor landscape. Some moors are covered by a variety of grasses and sedges, while others are dominated by heather. There are also cultivated areas including the Brendon Hills, which lie to the east of the National Park.

Wonderful woodland

There are also 7,400 acres of Forestry Commission woodland, comprising a mixture of broadleaved (Sessile Oak, Ash and Hazel) and conifers. Horner Wood and Tarr Steps are prime examples. The country’s highest Beech tree, at 350m above sea level, is at Birch Cleave at Simonsbath, but Beech in hedgebanks grow up to 490m.

At least two species of whitebeam – Sorbus subcuneata and Sorbus vexans are unique to Exmoor. These woodlands are home to lichens, mosses and ferns. Exmoor is the only national location for the lichens Biatoridium delitescens, Rinodina fimbriata and Rinodina flavosoralifera, the latter having been found only on one individual tree.

Red Deer have a stronghold on the moor and may be seen on quiet hillsides in remote areas, particularly in the early morning. A stag, the ‘Emperor of Exmoor’, was Britain’s largest known wild land animal, until it was killed in October 2010.

The moorland habitat is also home to hundreds of species of bird and insect. Due to the loss of large areas of moorland to agriculture, the typical upland birds associated with this habitat are thin on the ground, but species still seen include Merlin, Peregrine, Curlew, Stonechat, Dipper, Dartford Warbler and Ring Ouzel. Black and Red Grouse are now extinct on Exmoor, probably owing to a reduction in habitat management, and for the former, an increase in visitor pressure. Reed Bunting, Linnet, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Cuckoo, Tree Pipit and Snipe all maintain viable populations on the moorland.

Anywhere on Exmoor with suitable habitat is worth exploring, though the areas of Porlock and Horner Wood stand out. Porlock Weir is less used for seawatching than nearby Hurlstone Point, but can be good in similar west/north-west winds throughout the year.

 Stonechat Mike Lane/Alamy

Stonechat
Mike Lane/Alamy

In spring and summer, Manx Shearwater, Fulmar and Gannet move up channel on feeding forays, with a chance of Storm Petrel or Puffin in strong westerlies.

Autumn rarities have included Sooty Shearwater and Little Auk, while all three commoner divers may be seen in winter, with Red-throated by far the most frequent and numerous, from late November to early February. Guillemot, Razorbill and Kittiwake occur at any time of year, most frequently during late autumn or winter storms. Gore Point, 400 yards north of the harbour, gives the best view, but is very exposed, so the preferred spot is behind the shelter of a pillbox just beyond the cottages over the footbridge across the harbour.

Porlock Marsh on the coast attracts a few wildfowl and waders. It is worth a look in spring and autumn for passage waders. As the only low-lying coastal land between Minehead and the Devon border, the marsh was a magnet for migrants, including an impressive list of rarities. However, since the shingle bar was permanently breached in 1996, the marsh has become little more than tidal creeks, and wader interest is much decreased beyond a few Oystercatcher and Redshank.

The shingle, fields and old lime kilns on the east side, accessed from Bossington, are still worth exploring though: Shore Lark, Great Grey Shrike, Black Redstart and Snow Bunting have all been recorded here in autumn or winter. Singles of Isabelline Shrike, in spring, and Little Bunting, in winter, have been recorded along the west side, accessed by walking back along the road from Porlock Weir. The marsh is easily reached from Porlock village; a public footpath leads to the shingle bank.

 

Raptor viewing

Horner Wood is an excellent and extensive area of hanging Sessile Oak woodland, best in late April to early June, when singing Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatcher and Redstart join a wide variety of resident woodland species. It is also good for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which are elusive but easiest to locate slightly earlier in the year from late February to early May. Dipper and Grey Wagtail are regular on the two main streams, Horner Water and East Water.

A few Willow Tits might still lurk unnoticed among the relatively numerous Marsh Tits. The track up from the Horner car park is productive, but it does become busy especially at weekends. Quieter spots for the same woodland species are the stretch downstream from Pool Bridge on Horner Water or by the roadside along East Water near the ford at Cloutsham Splash; from here Cloutsham Ball is also a good area to explore. Between Horner and Cloutsham is the viewpoint at Webber’s Post; great for viewing raptors.

The pine, birch and scrub around the large car park host Crossbill, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll, Redstart and Garden Warbler. Nightjars also occur from May to August. It is easy to cover these sites in a circular route via Stoke Pero or Wilmersham Common, or to combine some of them with a visit to Chetsford Water or other high Exmoor combes. Usually it is best to visit the moorland combes first, as the steep-sided woodland combes can be quiet until the sun reaches into them later in the morning.

Two other points of interest: The walk down through the hanging woodlands to the isolated church of Culbone is one of the greatest rural experiences in these isles. Also, look out for Exmoor Ponies, that can be seen roaming freely on the moors. They are a ‘landrace’ rather than a breed of pony, and may be the closest breed to wild horses remaining in Europe; they are certainly one of the oldest breeds of pony in the world.
As for the ‘Beast of Exmoor’? A ‘shaggy cat story’ if ever there was one.

Where to stay in Exmoor

Offering far-reaching views of the surrounding Devon countryside, The Jubilee Inn in West Anstey is located near the southern edge of Exmoor National Park. The inn offers a three-course breakfast, free Wi-Fi and parking. Guests can enjoy an exciting menu in the onsite restaurant or relax in the bar. Packed lunches are also available on request, as are bicycles to explore the local area.

The inn is 35 miles from Exmouth, while Exeter International Airport is only 28 miles away.

 

Curlew Crisis Month – May 2018

Curlews in crisis

By Jamie Wyver of the RSPB

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Curlews have inspired artists, poets and musicians throughout the ages with their eerie but beautiful call. They also have a very distinctive shape, with their 15cm downcurved bill, evolved for probing soft mud for tasty worms, shellfish and shrimps.

But now our biggest wader is in serious trouble. Since the mid-1990s the breeding population of Eurasian curlews in the UK has halved. Vast tracts of moorland, rough pasture and hay meadows, which once rang to the sound of the rising, bubbling cries of these birds have fallen silent.

Many of the remaining curlews struggle to raise their young in an increasingly fragmented landscape. The patchy grassland and moorland where they nest is broken up by forestry and farming, making chicks more vulnerable to ground predators like foxes.

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This decline has global implications as the UK is home to more than a quarter of the world’s breeding curlews. This is particularly worrying as most of the other species in the curlew family are vanishing too, including two which are presumed to be extinct, the Eskimo curlew and Slender-billed Curlew.

So, the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group, a partnership involving a number of conservation organisations and statutory authorities, is running several projects to help curlews recover. One of these, the RSPB’s Curlew Trial Management Research Project, aims to find the best way of managing land to accommodate these birds. This includes looking at different levels of grazing and predator control.

Farmers and landowners play a vital role in reversing this bird’s fortunes. Already many are making a real difference, working with conservationists to try different methods of land management.

'Curlew Crisis Month'

As well as conservation on the ground, curlew champions across the UK are building support for these elegant birds through Curlew Crisis Month, a series of special guided walks and events.

All 'Curlew Crisis Month' events require pre-booking: for details visit the webpage for each event.

The Vanishing Song of the Curlew, RSPB Dove Stone – Sunday 6 May

RSPB Dove Stone in the Peak District National Park is a particularly important site for curlews. Along with the landowner, United Utilities, the reserve team have been working to “re-wet” the bog, by blocking old drainage ditches. This is having a positive effect on the numbers of ground nesting birds, with populations of dunlins, golden plovers and red grouse, as well as curlew, increasing on the peat bog. Book your place on the Dove Stone Vanishing Song of the Curlew walk to discover more about the reserve and the curlews that call it home.

More information here

Whaap Night, Lerwick - Saturday 12 May

The special Whaap Night at Quarff Hall, Shetland, is named after one of the curlew’s traditional monikers ‘whaap’ or ‘whaup’. The celebrations begin with wader sound walks, curlew-themed knitting, wader art, and the launch of a curlew ringtone! Live music from Fleetwood Mac tribute band Chain Gang, supported by Beltane Rae, will celebrate the long-billed bird.

More information here

Curlew Cruise, RSPB Lower Lough Erne, Saturday 19 May

The islands of Lough Erne managed by the RSPB make up one of the last strongholds for curlews in Northern Ireland. The reserve team carefully manage levels of vegetation on these by hand, but also enlist the help of cattle who are ferried between islands on a special boat called a cot. You can take a slightly more comfortable tour of the Lough by joining the Curlew Cruise, where a seat on the Lady of the Lake double-deck cruiser will give you stunning views of the islands and their wildlife.

More information here

Curlew Calling, RSPB Geltsdale – Saturday 19 May

Ian Ryding is the farmland warden at RSPB Geltsdale – and a musician. He’s hosting Curlew Calling, an evening of music and poetry celebrating the landscape and birdlife of the northern hills. His band The Talkin Fellas will be performing a curlew song they’ve written specially for the event. Ian says “As a warden at Geltsdale, to me the curlew is the true harbinger of the changing seasons. With their arrival come ever lengthening days and the anticipation of spring.”

More information here

Woods and Moors Dawn Chorus walk, Eastern Moors – Sunday 27 May

They’re not exactly songbirds but you’ll definitely hear curlews on the Woods and Moors Dawn Chorus walk at Eastern Moors. Find out how the reserve team manage this upland nature reserve for curlews, ring ouzels, and other rare species.

More information here

Curlew Moon at Hay Festival – Friday 1 June

Mary Colwell, conservationist, producer, and writer will be giving an illustrated talk about her new book, Curlew Moon. RSPB Global Conservation Director Martin Harper and curlew species champion and Welsh Assembly Member Mark Isherwood will join Mary to discuss the future of this threatened wader.

More information here

You can also support the RSPB’s curlew conservation work by treating yourself to Mirrie Dancers limited edition chocolate curlew eggs. For each bag of eggs sold an average donation of £1.49 goes towards curlew conservation.

Buy your chocolate eggs here

#My200BirdYear Readers’ Day – RSPB Frampton Marsh

Words: Matt Merritt / Pics: Mark Cureton / Video: Jake Kindred

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The best days of birdwatching always require a bit of co-operation from the fickle British weather, and as we headed towards Frampton Marsh RSPB last Friday (September 22), it briefly looked as though that co-operation wasn’t going to be forthcoming.

Thick mist obscured the fields, and we wondered whether we’d see any of the many waders displaced from The Wash by the extremely high tide.

But our fears were misplaced. Gaps appeared to reveal first the sun, then a flyover group of Golden Plovers, and as we got our things together in the car-park more and more of this fast-developing site emerged from the mist, along with a loose flock of around 50 Bird Watching readers, most of them intent on adding a few ticks to their #my200birdyear lists.

Grey Plovers flew over, calling, a Cetti’s Warbler chattered away from some nearby scrub, and as we walked towards the sea wall, there was also the sound of Curlews somewhere in the distance, plus Redshanks sounding the alarm.

On the scrapes beside the road, little flocks of Dunlin fed, interspersed with the odd Ruff or Greenshank, while around 15 Yellow Wagtails picked around the feet of cattle.

By the time we reached the sea wall, the mist was gone for good, and we had wide-ranging views both back over the reserve, and out over the rapidly disappearing saltmarsh. Little Stints and Curlew Sandpipers were picked out from among the Dunlin below us, while a Wheatear perched on a fencepost and a Sparrowhawk dashed across, hoping to flush Meadow Pipits. A little further away, a flock of 3,000-plus Black-tailed Godwits were visible, plus maybe half that many Wigeon, and some extended ‘grilling’ of the former produced a single Knot, while a small group of Spotted Redshanks flew over.

So far, so good. Pretty much everyone was adding ticks to their lists, but more importantly, they were enjoying the glorious birds in glorious sunshine, and getting a lot of useful tips from Frampton Marsh warden Toby Collett (@boywonderbirder), who gave a relaxed but hugely informative wader ID masterclass.

Scope views of a Merlin on the ground on the far side of the reserve turned our attention to raptors, and we picked out Kestrels, Buzzards and Marsh Harriers at long range, plus a single Whooper Swan and a similarly solo Bar-tailed Godwit. Wood Sandpiper was another good tick for many, although it eluded some of us (including me – I’m not jealous, honest).

Finally, we headed over to the Reservoir, a part of the reserve I’ve completely missed in the past, to look for the Red-necked Grebe that had been present for a couple of days. And sure enough, there it was, a juvenile resplendent with stripy cheek and throat, and rusty-red neck and upper breast. It was an active bird, and occasionally hard to pick out from the many Little Grebes also on the pool, but it kept us all watching for a good hour.

So, we all headed homewards tired but with the satisfaction of having seen something new, whether for the year or for the life list (that Merlin on the ground was a first for me – I’ve only ever seen them perch on fenceposts previously).

And that’s what the Bird Watching #my200birdyear Readers’ Days are all about. Seeing something new, learning something new. Let us know what you learned, or where you’d like future events to take place, and keep an eye out for news of the next one...

Get in touch: Email here

Watch the #My200BirdYear Readers' Day video:

 

 

Birds on the move

Where did the birds around us right now come from? They might have travelled further than you think

By Dominic Couzens

 Pic: GEORGE RESZETER / Alamy Stock Photo

Pic: GEORGE RESZETER / Alamy Stock Photo

How do you assess a birding trip? There are various ways, such as counting the number of species you have seen, or re-living good photos that you took. You might have seen something new for the site, or you simply enjoyed the spectacle. On a good day, all these might apply.

However, let’s imagine measuring a birding trip in a very different way. This way is actually not quite possible, but if it was, it would change one’s perception radically. Imagine that, from the moment you set eyes on it, you could know where every individual bird that you saw has come from.

In other words, you would instantly know where it bred or hatched during the summer, and what journey it undertook to get to you. Wouldn’t that make you look at your Black-headed Gulls or Mallards differently!

Now would be a particularly good time to exploit such information. We are in the depths of winter and most birds have settled down for a while. In the months after breeding, many moulted and travelled to their winter quarters.

Now, though, as long as there aren’t any heavy falls of snow, birds have typically moved as far as they will for the moment. The autumn rush has finally subsided, to be replaced by a Christmas quiet.

There is no way to follow a bird’s tracks back, but actually, thanks to the rich heritage of ringing in this country and in Europe, we can make a much better educated guess than you might think.

Two winter bird walks

 Pic: David Chapman / Alamy Stock Photo

Pic: David Chapman / Alamy Stock Photo

To illustrate this, I am going to take you on two winter walks. One will recount an actual walk that I have taken in my local patch, a couple of small reservoirs next to a river in Dorset, 10km inland. The second is a walk through a book, the BTO’s mighty Migration Atlas, published in 2002 and summarising the known movements of every British bird.

To quote one example from the book, of Redwings controlled (caught, having been ringed earlier) in Britain, 60% are known to be from Finland, 14% from Sweden and 5% from Norway. This is raw data and subject to all sorts of bias – there isn’t much ringing in the vast forests of European Russia, for example.

But, since the first birds I saw on my walk were a small flock of Redwings passing over in the grey, damp December sky, I am fancifully going to extrapolate: of my 15 Redwings, I reckon that nine are from Finland, two from Sweden and about three-quarters of the other bird is from Norway.

Although I will never know, and it would take enormous effort ever to find out for sure, my estimate is still based on real statistics. It does have a value in making you realise where our winter birds are coming from.

Black-headed Gull

 Pic: KEVIN ELSBY / Alamy Stock Photo

Pic: KEVIN ELSBY / Alamy Stock Photo

My next species, inevitably, is Black-headed Gull. The lakes are often carpeted with these gulls in the winter – up to 400 birds. To be honest, on most trips I barely notice them, and rarely can I be bothered to count them.

Let’s face it – who really does bother with Black-headed Gulls? In fact, though, their origins are thoroughly mixed, so they are a particularly good candidate for this kind of exercise.

We have significant colonies in Dorset, so it is extremely likely that some of my flock will be local birds. But perhaps what many birders don’t realise is that Black-headed Gulls arrive in large numbers in winter from many parts of Europe and that about 70% of the birds we see in winter are visitors. 

These are mainly from Fennoscandia and the near-continent, but others are from less obvious places such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Belarus. My flock could contain birds of nine or 10 nationalities.

Blackbird, Chaffinch, Great Crested Grebe and more…

A Blackbird scoots past into the nearest scrub – about a quarter of our visiting birds are from Norway, so if I later see a small group of Blackbirds feeding in the horse paddocks beside the lake, I can assume that at least one is from there.

Chaffinches are an interesting case, because you can usually tell that they are continental visitors from their behaviour. The really big flocks of Chaffinches on arable fields and in woods are usually visitors, while residents tend to occur in smaller parties and don’t wander.

Our birds are often from Scandinavia, but they don’t like the long crossing over the North Sea, and prefer to fly down the coast of Europe and make the short hop over from France.

A quick check of the first reservoir throws up some Great Crested Grebes – they often come to larger waterbodies in winter when the smaller ones freeze up, but they are all probably local.

Some of the Tufted Ducks also bred here, but others are likely to be from Norway and Finland. They have a few Pochards among them, too, and here I can add some hard data to the mix. Last year, we recorded a female fitted with a band on its bill, proving that it had commuted here from northern France, where it was a breeding bird.

This individual clearly hadn’t read the right books, because these birds are supposed to migrate south and west in winter, not due north. Many of our winter Pochards actually come from Latvia.

As usual, I check the flock for our lone winter Scaup, and eventually find it loafing among a flock of Tufties. This is one of the visitors that most probably comes from Iceland, along with our Snipe and perhaps a few Teals and other northern ducks.

Along the shoreline, a Pied Wagtail feeds. It might be sharing the same space as the nearby ducks, but ringing suggests that this bird could well be Scottish, evacuating the hills and glens for a shoreline in southern England.

I could go on. I hear a Water Rail, not realising at the time that it could be a German bird. A Sparrowhawk passes over and, to my great surprise, I read from the Migration Atlas that it could easily be from Norway or Denmark. The local Grey Herons could be from almost anywhere, and every winter we have an inexplicable influx of local Little Egrets, just for a few weeks.

In my local patch there happens to be a programme of ringing. It is exciting when we have a ‘control’ from somewhere like France or Portugal, but in a way it is the local and semi-local birds that are the most intriguing.

For example, our breeding Reed Buntings literally evacuate the site and go just a handful of kilometres down to the coast. We have controlled a Cetti’s Warbler that was ringed in Yorkshire – not only are they not supposed to go in that direction, but they aren’t meant to fly that far, either.

That’s the beauty of this form of fantasy birding. Who would expect a ‘sedentary’ bird to embark of such a strange movement? And who can imagine where all the other individuals have been?

One thing is for sure. If you really knew where all the birds had come from, you wouldn’t look at them in the same way, however common they were. If this form of birding ever became possible, it could catch on.

* This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Bird Watching magazine. Make sure you never miss an issue – check our great subscription deals here!

Birdwatching in Oland, Sweden

By Göran Andersson of Visitoland.com

Öland, the long island in the southern Baltic Sea, has everything the visitor needs to ensure a steady stream of new encounters with birds.

Eventually, it begins to dawn on any visiting birdwatcher that ornithological interests alone are not enough in this multifaceted cultural landscape with its colourful, historical origins and breathtaking geology.

Before long, the ornithologist becomes absorbed in everything and understands that here the saying "Carpe diem" has run its course.

On Öland, people do not seize the day... they are captivated by the unfolding of every new day and are compelled to return time and time again to the island to experience tomorrow!

The southern part of the island is not at all like the northern part and the east coast is wholly different from the west coast. The Great Alvar, the barren limestone plain typical of southern Öland is unique, as is northern Öland's mosaic landscape and the fantastic Mittland Forest in between.

One day the high tide reaches the coastal meadows... the following morning the coast's clay beds are exposed by the low tides and are alive with resting Waders.

This kaleidoscope of steadily shifting environments guarantees plenty of exciting encounters with the island's birdlife.

The island has its own unique weather system, and few meteorologists have mastered the art of making a conclusive forecast, which is essentially impossible. They, and the people of Öland, know that Öland's weather is almost always extremely localised and fluctuating.

However, if you discuss the weather with a farmer or fisherman on the east side, you will often be given an exact current forecast and a trustworthy two-day outlook.

Pics by: Tommie Skoog, Lars Lundmark, Hans Olsson, Eva Aubke, Markus Tallroth and Martin Rodensjö.

An ice-free, green winter on the island creates the conditions for a completely different kind of birdlife than when the Baltic Sea is covered with ice and high pressures from Russia cool Öland down.

If a mild and snow-free December continues with the warm low pressure systems of the Gulf Stream heading north-east in January, then the first spring birds arrive, early "weather migrants" such as Greylag Geese, Common Shelducks, Golden Plovers, Northern Lapwings, Eurasian Skylarks and Starlings.

Yes, the experiences of one spring, when the Atlantic low pressure systems keep arriving over southern Sweden, differ significantly from the bird sightings that are reported when easterly winds blow in over the Baltic Sea.

And just as the final, heat-loving migrants arrive during the last half of May, e.g. Marsh Warblers, Icterine Warblers, Barred Warblers, Greenish Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes, Eurasian Golden Orioles and Common Rosefinches, the spectacular and drawn out migratory bird autumn begins.

As early as this, last year's Common Shelducks and female Eurasian Curlews head south west and as the tourist season kicks into action in June, the Green Sandpipers, Spotted Redshanks, Common Greenshanks and Wood Sandpipers are resting during their journey south.

The strange thing is that the autumn route south can continue into midwinter. For example if there are harsh, cold easterly winds at the start of January after a mild start to the winter... then the Baltic Sea empties of thousands of Little Gulls, often along the south-east coast of Öland.

Or in February, when the ice begins to make serious progress in the Gulf of Finland, and in Estonia and Åland's archipelagos... a steady stream of Common Gulls, European Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls leave the Baltic Sea in a south-westerly direction via Öland.

And if these, the last of the autumn migrants, head for milder low pressure winds over southernmost Sweden, they may meet Lapwings, Starlings and Eurasian Skylarks flying north-east.

Despite Öland's maritime climate it is a sunny and fairly dry landscape, which is good company for a birder.

The southernmost part of Sweden, perhaps mostly the highlands of Småland, provide a "rain shadow" for the island: precipitation falls from the damp low pressure fronts in the west before reaching Öland.

On the other side when the Baltic Sea offers an ice-free winter, one of the meteorologists' favourite expressions is born, "snow cannons", from the dry, biting and icy north-easterly winds. They have their origin in the powerful, Russian high-pressure fronts and create curtains of snow on their way to Öland.

Sometimes the island experiences the special and fascinating but dangerous snow storm - the Öland Fåk! To experience a real "fåk" under safe conditions, is a spectacular experience for the humble human.

In combination these create Öland's eight seasons, the foundation for a landscape with a rich fauna.

The ultimate birding year consists of four "normal" seasons, linked together by four in-between periods of fluctuating weather.

When these meteorological conditions are then combined with ornithological magnificence, such as:

•     routes of migrating birds,

•     gatherings of migrating birds on the headland of the north and south,

•     traditional resting places where the whole of Öland is a refuge in the routes of migrating birds,

•     the marshes of the Great Alvar and wetlands that blink in the otherwise fairly barren habitat,

•     smallholdings in the alternating mosaic landscape and

•     the grazed coastal meadows beside the Baltic Sea,

yes, it is a mathematical truth... Öland is a completely unique place for birds.

Most of Sweden's birds have been seen here and wherever you find yourself between March and July you will hear the Skylarks singing. Yes, nowhere else in the country is there such a high concentration of Skylarks!

The limestone plains, look like misplaced alpine heathland. But when you look out across the Great Alvar or hike along the Alvar-clad limestone floor, the experience almost approaches a verdant "inland sea".

This lyrical and slightly desolate ocean of growth has its own special brand of horizon, a thin line between land and sky... like a counterpart to the distant blue horizons of the Baltic Sea and the Kalmar Strait.

Merlins, Golden Plovers and Eurasian Curlews nest here.... and where the juniper has crept onto the plain, inside the kingdom of stone walls, there are species such as Red-backed Shrikes, Common Whitethroats, Common Linnets as well as Whinchats and Northern Wheatears.

Öland, for a birder, is a magical landscape all year round. My own annual cycle often begins with overwintering Golden Eagles on the limestone plains and huge gatherings of White-tailed Eagles along the coast.

Migrating birds, such as Common Snipes, Meadow Pipits, Song Thrushes and Redwings remain and along the banks of seaweed or in some industrial area, Black Redstarts spend the winter.

The Horned Larks and Sanderlings return to a sandbank by the sea.

If there is a really harsh winter, it doesn't arrive until February. Then there is a chance of seeing Steller's Eiders and Purple Sandpipers, who often remain as spring and early summer creeps over the island.

For me, the real sounds of spring are the coastline's laughing Common Shelducks and screeching Black-headed Gulls, along with the parasols of sound that span the landscape and the limestone plains, like unpredictable Eurasian Skylarks and Northern Lapwings that hover over those who take the time to see and listen.

For a few nights in May I am offered a starter to the summer, a dish that makes its way straight to my heart and soul: Corncrakes, Nightjars, Common Quails and Thrush Nightingales. After that everything around us, Öland's birders, deepens and grows, so there is barely time to see everything. There are, quite simply, just too many birds here.

The loveliest period of the summer comes in August along the east coast of Öland, especially during late afternoons and evenings. The sea is warm now and the shallow, stretching beaches and the exposed sea beds produce food for migrating birds.

Here we can sit with the sun on our backs and just enjoy the Arctic Wader migration, perfected by Parasitic Jaegers, Dippers, Black Terns and the unbelievably fascinating migration of Common and Arctic Terns, but also by episodes of Caspian, Little and Sandwich Terns!

And then, one dawn as September becomes October, hundreds of thousands of European Robins and Goldcrests arrive on Öland, after a night migrating across the Baltic Sea.

They are everywhere. They strum and sing from every square metre of solid ground and you are captured and enchanted by this "magical, great migration" experience.

After that experience, nothing again seems the same in your ornithologist's life. You will always return to Öland, whether it is in your thoughts or in reality.

And then comes the great day of Common Cranes... or the day of the Rough-legged Buzzards. Days of Greater White-fronted Geese and Barnacle Geese, before November turn the paraffin lamp's flame down to its lowest.

Finally, in the last light on the afternoon of New Year's Eve you see a male Common Blackbird rummaging through autumn leaves.

Click here for the Visit Oland website

 

 

 

BBC Springwatch at RSPB Minsmere

As we all sit glued to our screens watching the latest bird-related dramas unfold on BBC TV’s Springwatch, Adam Rowlands, RSPB Senior Sites Manager for North Suffolk Reserves, recalls the highs and lows of hosting the popular series at RSPB Minsmere for the last two years.

Adam says: “Before the Springwatch cameras rolled into Minsmere, few visitors paid much attention to the reserve’s fish, unless they were being eaten by a bittern or little egret. All that changed in June 2015 as the saga of Spineless Si unfolded on our screens, and visitors began taking selfies as they watched his antics live from the boardwalk into Island Mere Hide.

The popularity of this two-inch long stickleback took even the producers by surprise, but also highlighted how much there is to learn about behaviour of even our commonest wildlife.

A great example of this was what became known as “Badger-geddon” when, during the first series from Minsmere in 2014, a badger was filmed swimming out to islands on the Scrape and devouring nest after nest of gull and avocet eggs.

Armed with this new evidence, we set about replacing the aging anti-predator fence around the Scrape with a higher specification fence the following winter.

The results were instant, with 2015 the most successful breeding season for avocets for more than 30 years. After the low of 2014, it was heart-warming to see so many avocet chicks feeding close to the Scrape hides.

There was another positive side to the badger predation too, as we teamed up with the BBC and Dawn Scott from the University of Brighton to understand more about Minsmere’s badgers by fitting some with radio collars.

Adders, too, became the subject of a tracking programme with tiny transmitters fitted to some of them to give an insight into their movements.

In fact, adders have become a star attraction at Minsmere during the spring, with many visitors being lucky enough to watch them dancing as courtship reaches full swing in early April.

Their popularity with visitors could have presented a problem as adders are very prone to disturbance. But we spoke to some experienced adder surveyors within our volunteer team and quickly identified an effective way to allow visitors, including families, to spot these sometimes elusive snakes without disturbing them.

Our temporary adder trail was a great success, and coupled with the BBC data, our volunteer guides were able to build up a good knowledge of individual snakes.

Volunteers, of course, are a key to helping to ensuring that Minsmere works as both a leading visitor attraction in Suffolk on one of the best homes for nature in the UK. Once we knew that Springwatch would be moving to Minsmere we recruited an additional team of volunteers to assist with all aspects of the reserve operations.

Recruiting volunteers before the first series was a test of our imagination. Until the official BBC announcement about three weeks before broadcast, we had to deny that Springwatch were even coming to Minsmere, so the adverts asked for “secret keepers”.

Of course, it was obvious that something was happening as the BBC had constructed a new studio close to the Whin Hill watchpoint, as well as two filming hides on the Scrape, so you could say this was the worst kept secret in the world.

As secrets go, though, this one was a long time in the planning. Much longer than many people realised.

We first met with Springwatch film maker Nigel Bean way back in 2008 when they were looking for a new home for the series after deciding to leave their original Devon Farm. At the time, Minsmere’s technical restrictions meant that they chose to set up at Pensthorpe in Norfolk instead.

(Photos by Rupert Masefield and John Chapman)

Although disappointing, this proved to be a blessing in disguise. By the time we spoke to Nigel again in July 2013, we had upgraded our visitor facilities and infrastructure and felt much more confident that we could facilitate the anticipated increase in visitors should Springwatch set up base at Minsmere.

Nigel quickly realised the potential for Minsmere to provide footage of the best of the UK’s wildlife within easy reach of a central base, but while the communication issue was easier to address this time, there was one big question to answer: where would the studio be?

We had no suitable building, so a purpose-built studio was commissioned – once approved by the BBC bosses, of course.

This was only the start of the planning though. We had to plan carefully to accommodate both the BBC and the expected extra visitors to ensure that everyone continued to enjoy their visits to Minsmere – and to improve the visitor experience throughout the year.

As well as extra volunteers, our planning meant bringing in a temporary pop up cafe in the woods to supplement our own cafe, providing extra toilets and overflow car parking, producing extra signage, and training our new volunteers.

The BBC had logistical issues to address too, as this was the first time Springwatch had been based at a site with high public access.

Temporary Springwatch village

A temporary village for 120 staff was built in two weeks prior to broadcast, and dismantled again in just 48 hours. There were 12 fixed cameras erected around the reserve, and three mobile cameramen ready to record the action, as well as a team of engineers, story-editors and even their own catering team, all working shift patterns around the clock to bring footage, not just for the live programmes, but the via the red button too.

Cables had to be laid to minimise disturbance, and wherever possible cameras were checked or moved at first light, before many visitors were around. It is no small feat to lay 32 km of cabling around a nature reserve without disturbing visitors or wildlife, but the BBC’s expertise ensured that this was done successfully, ready for broadcast.

In that first year, we were surprised to hear that much of that cabling came direct to Minsmere from the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. Even more surprisingly, within an hour of the final programme finishing, some cables were on route to the football World Cup in Brazil, with the rest soon packed off to Glastonbury.

I’m sure that Bert Axell, Minsmere’s famous warden from the 1950s and ‘60s, and creator of the Scrape, would have been chuckling at that thought, as his ambition was always to make Minsmere’s Scrape the “Wembley of birdwatching”, even if the thought of thousands of visitors might make him turn in his grave!

Bringing wildlife to our TV screens

Finally, everything was ready for the cameras to roll and the presenters to bring Minsmere’s amazing wildlife to TV screens across the UK. Fittingly, 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the BBC’s Live Birdwatch programmes presented by Tony Soper from Minsmere, while this year will mark 35 years since the first of those broadcasts in 1981. Both the scale and technology involved in live broadcast have changed a lot in the intervening years.

Talking of scale, the planning that went in before the shows even aired meant regular 15-hour days for our Site Manager, Robin Harvey, and me as we worked with the BBC to identify filming locations and reduce any impact on the wildlife.

But the rewards were worth it. I can vividly recall the excitement of stumbling upon a bittern nest with eggs still being incubated whilst looking for another known nest. This new nest went on to steal the show in year one as viewers were captivated by the growing bittern chicks eager to watch them “semi-fledge.”

Our bitterns proved popular with visitors too, with the females’ regular feeding flights ensuring that most visitors had the chance to see these often elusive birds. Some visitors were brought to tears by these bittern encounters.

We’ve also learned a lot from working alongside the BBC’s expert nest finder, Steve Roberts, as his skills proved invaluable when locating nests. We feel more confident in our abilities to find nests now, too.

After the bitterns and tawny owls in year one, and the avocet chicks, adders and sticklebacks in year two, which species will be the stars of the current BBC show? However much we plan, the unpredictability of wildlife means that until the cameras roll once more, we really couldn’t guess.”

Visit RSPB Minsmere official website.

Visit the official Springwatch site.

Identify Marsh and Willow Tits by sound

This pair of birds are among the most difficult to separate of all British birds – at least based on their appearance. The most reliable way to separate these brown tits is their voice. Unfortunately, there is considerable variation and a little overlap in the vocalisations. Fortunately, though both species are very vocal, and the most common calls and songs are distinctive and diagnostic.


Marsh Tit song

Marsh Tit song by birdwatchingmag

Like a fast repetition of the ‘pitchoo’ call, especially the second (‘choo’) half. The phrase is rather monotone and consists of several ‘choos’ in rapid succession.


Marsh Tit ‘pitchoo’ call

Marsh Tit calls by birdwatchingmag

The classic Marsh Tit call is a sneezing ‘pitchoo’, with a distinct separation of the clipped, high-pitched first part and a drawn out pew sound for the second half of the sneeze. The call is often followed by a typically tit-like ‘chicka dee-dee-dee’, which is rapidly paced, unlike the chay chay of Willow Tit.

Willow Tit ‘pew’ song

Willow Tit song by birdwatchingmag

The slurred, drawn out repeated pew notes of Willow Tit song are more reminiscent of Wood Warbler pew song than Marsh Tit. It is a slower, more deliberate ‘pew’, also reminiscent of Coal Tit.Willow Tit song by birdwatchingmag

 


Willow Tit ‘chay chay’ call

Willow Tit calls by birdwatchingmag

The typical and unmistakable call of the Willow Tit consists of a very brief introduction pi followed by three or four drawn-out, rather buzzing ‘chay’ notes. Crucially, these are slowly paced, unlike the rapid ‘chickadee-dee-dee’ of Marsh Tit.

 

Let us know how you get on. Email birdwatching@bauermedia.co.uk

The Outer Limits

Bird Watching editor Matt Merritt blogs from his trip to the Falklands

As a child, there are certain birds you imagine will always remain within the covers of books.

For me, this was never more true than of albatrosses. I could, in my wildest daydreams, just about conceive of trekking to see Andean Condors, or birds-of-paradise, or kookaburras or roadrunners. Some of those daydreams have even been fulfilled.

But albatrosses? No. Not being of seafaring stock, the chances looked just too slim. Even if I was ever to find myself in the southern oceans, their utter vastness would be too much. Needles and haystacks sprung to mind.

The odd Black-browed Albatross turned up in Scottish Gannet colonies, justifying their presence in European field guides. But that just made it worse. So near, yet so far. The now-legendary ‘Albert Ross’, a bird that returned to the northern UK until the mid-90s, was just too early for me to twitch. The nearest I got was watching the Fulmars at Scarborough, or Hunstanton.

All of which lent a dream-like quality to the short boat trip across from Carcass Island to West Point Island. Off the north-west corner of West Falkland, they’re isolated even by Falkland standards, but of course that’s what makes them perfect nesting sites for some of the world’s most extraordinary seabirds.

So, suddenly, as you get close to West Point’s towering cliffs, you realise that the large flocks on the water all around are not yet more Kelp Gulls. They’re bigger, they sit higher in the water, and as soon as you get the binoculars on them you can see that they’re meeting your gaze with a stern, disapproving glare. Black-browed Albatrosses.

That would have been enough. Not the odd bird, but hundreds, some just feet from the boat. I could have gone home a happy man. But what makes West Point a must-visit if you’re in the Falklands is the fact that those first views of flocks feeding at sea are just the starter. The main course is utterly extraordinary.

You can walk or be driven the short way across the island to the promontory of Devil’s Nose, but whichever you choose you won’t be in a hurry to leave. Around 500 pairs of Rockhopper Penguins and 2,000 pairs of Black-browed Albatrosses nest here on the steep, grassy westward-facing slopes (you can imagine the clamour, and the smell). It’s a measure of how staggering the albatrosses’ presence is that you can find yourself forgetting the penguins are there, charismatic as they are.

Part of that is because of the contrast between the albatrosses’ frowning, slightly intimidating appearance, and their ultra-confiding behaviour. Time and again, as you push through the thick tussock-grass, you find yourself within touching distance of one.

Sometimes it’s the adult birds, and it’s a wonderful chance to get an idea of their very considerable size (think Gannet, or a smallish goose) and the beautiful subtleties of their plumage.

More often, it’s a grey, downy youngster, sitting atop a pedestal nest. Care needs to be taken not to startle the birds, because a youngster that falls off the nest won’t be fed, but they seem pretty unflappable, if you’ll excuse the pun.

The chicks take 120-130 days to fledge, after which they head out to sea, only returning after around three years. After that, they take another seven or so years before they actually breed – the intervening time is spent in practicing courtship rituals.

The long journeys that lie ahead are all the harder to take in as you watch the young birds. They’re even clumsier on the ground than their parents, who use little downhill grass runways on the hillside to launch themselves into the air.

Once they ,do, though, they’re transformed. Those immensely long, narrow wings are merely twitched every now and then as they find and ride the air currents swirling around the cliffs. As you watch, you become aware of certain fixed flightpaths being used by bird after bird, each aerial highway shifting position slowly over the course of an hour or two.

And of course, you’re sat high but perfectly safe on the cliffs, with albatrosses flashing across above and below you. Gaze out to sea, and as far as the horizon there are albatrosses skimming the surface of the waves. For all you can tell, they stretch away in a swirling, At times you can feel you’re gliding out there too, so complete is your immersion in this overwhelming experience.

There’s one final disorientating contrast to take in, in that five minutes after being in the midst of this extraordinary mass of bird-life, you can be enjoying a very British cuppa and cake in the island’s farmhouse.

That mixture of the homely and the genuinely fantastic is typical of the islands, but nowhere is it so pronounced as on West Point. If you’ve come this far, from home and those childhood daydreams, make sure you go that bit further, to the outer islands, and the outer limits of your birding imagination.

In search of Capercaillie

Bird Watching editor Matt Merritt tried one of Heatherlea’s Caper Breaks, and got much more than he bargained for…

Maybe 200 yards away, there’s a large, dark brown bundle in the middle of the frosty forestry track. We whisper to each other about it, as much in a sort of excited awe as an attempt to avoid scaring it away.

That’s because the bundle is a hen Capercaillie. We’re barely past breakfast on the first day of our November Caper Break, and we’ve already found the species that most of us are desperate to see, here in the Abernethy Forest just a couple of miles from Heatherlea’s Nethy Bridge hotel.

The bird is far enough away not to be panicked by us, but close enough that she’s still wary, so we’re able to watch for fully 15 minutes, taking in the orange-brown chest and white-flecked flanks. Is it just my imagination, or does she edge away towards cover almost imperceptibly?

When, finally, we do drive on, it’s for a walk in the forest that brings Crested Tits, a few Waxwings, Common Crossbills and Goldcrests, plus Red Squirrels. There are more Cresties around the feeders at Loch Garten RSPB, too, and we enjoy watching them while Coal Tits feed from our hands. Bank Vole is another good mammal tick, feeding on oatmeal near the main hide. Afternoon takes us up Strathdearn (also sometimes called the Findhorn Valley) in search of eagles. This time, our target eludes us, but there are still plenty of raptors, as well as Red Deer stags roaring at each other on the higher slopes. Buzzard, Kestrel and a Peregrine show, and just before we leave, a Goshawk tilts at a pair of the many Ravens that soar around the valley.

Our superb guide, Ian Ford, has already made the point that watching the Ravens is often a great way of telling if large raptors are around. It’s not the last time he’ll be proved right. That evening, over an excellent dinner, we discuss the day’s sightings amongst the six of us. We recount the Caper sighting again and again, but first thing the next morning, a visit to moorland near the hotel provides a grouse encounter that’s very nearly a match for it. A Red Grouse cock sits just above the road, calling, while in the opposite direction, seven Blackcocks strut around in full view, their white undertails and red wattles standing out a mile in the just-past-dawn light. The sound’s as thrilling as the sight – bubbling calls and a noise like squealing train brakes.

Talking of calls, we twice hear what sounds like the bugling of Cranes, but if they’re passing overhead, the low cloud hides them well.

We stop off at Loch Garten again, to enjoy the Cresties and Coal Tits, with the latter refusing to take anything but black sunflower seeds, and our journey to the coast is broken by a stop for some close-range viewing of Red Grouse near Lochindorb.

Findhorn Bay produces a flyover flock of Waxwings plus Golden Plovers and Bar-tailed Godwits, while some seawatching at a very windy Findhorn itself produces Black and Red-throated Divers, Common and Velvet Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, and singles of Slavonian Grebe and immature Gannet. A Hen Harrier coming in off the sea is a thrill, too. Burghead boasts a Grey Seal in the harbour, plus Eider flocks and scoters offshore.

Rain the following morning can’t dampen our spirits – Dipper, Whooper Swans and Goosanders see to that, and although Capercaillie remains hidden at the private estate to which Heatherlea has access, a Peregrine piques our interest before Ian spots a Woodcock well camouflaged among dead wood just 10 yards from our minibus.

Perhaps the cryptically-patterned, usually-secretive wader has just dropped in from Scandinavia, because never before have I been able to watch this beautiful bird at such length, bouncing up and down as it walks, probing the soft ground with its long bill as it feeds hungrily. Even when it turns its back on us, we can see the dark eyes watching our every camera click (and there are a lot of them in half an hour).

We head back up Strathdearn, feeling lucky, and although we only get Buzzards near the top end, as we return we stop by the roadside, and I find myself watching a pair of Ravens above a wooded ridge.

Suddenly, there’s something huge up there too, ducking out of sight, and when we drive round the next bend, we can see it’s a juvenile White-tailed Eagle, hanging on the wind and carrying a stick.

We watch while the Ravens attempt to goad it into chasing them, and once or twice it obliges, but mainly it concerns itself with dropping then catching the stick, all the time showing superb mastery of the gale with its great, barn-door wings. It’s my first UK White-tailed, and it’s just that little bit sweeter for being self-found.

We just have time to find a few female Scaup, plus a close-range Red Kite, along the Moray Firth, before we head back to the hotel, each picking out a different highlight from three packed days.

And, it’s worth saying, that’s a highlight in itself. The expertise of our guide ensures an incredible amount gets packed into the short autumn days, while the small groups make for a friendly birdwatching experience with individual expertise passing back and forth freely.

If you’ve never tried a birding holiday before, you couldn’t do better as a place to start. It’s friendly and far from daunting, but you’ll enjoy some of the UK’s most iconic birds.

Starlings and Swallows in South Africa

At the end of February, I was lucky enough to travel to South Africa on one of Lawson’s Safaris’ birdwatching trips.

After flying to Nelspruit from Johannesburg, we birded our way through Blyde River Canyon, spent two days in the Kruger National Park, then flew down to Durban before heading north along the KwaZulu Natal coast, with stops at Eshowe, Mtunzini and St Lucia.

As you’d imagine, we encountered an extraordinary variety of birds and mammals, from the smallest sunbird right up to elephants and giraffes. I’ll be writing about it in detail in Bird Watching in the summer, but in the meantime, a mention for some of the less glamorous avian inhabitants of South Africa.

Firstly, although we saw plenty of other representatives of their families – hirundinidae and apodidae respectively – the familiar (Eurasian) Swift and (Barn) Swallow were both present in good numbers. Both would be among my favourite UK birds anyway, but there’s something genuinely moving about the thought that the birds we were seeing skimming over the bush might, in a matter of weeks, be searching for their insect food above rather more prosaic UK habitats, like playing fields and sewage works.

The day in late April (in fact, it’s been early May the last couple of years) when the first screams of Swifts outside rouse me from my sofa-bound stupor is already one of my most eagerly awaited birding experiences of the year – this year, it will take on a little extra frisson of excitement.

Swifts and Swallows do at least get the credit they deserve. Artists, photographers and poets queue up to pay tribute to these most aerial of birds, but the same can’t be said of Starlings. True, their astonishing ‘murmurations’ draw gasps of admiration every time a national newspaper’s picture editor enlists their help to cope with a slow news day, but individually, they’re routinely denigrated as the bullies of the bird-table, despite the worrying declines they’ve suffered in recent years.

In South Africa, we came across starlings of all shapes and sizes. Wattled Starlings, with their ornate face-furniture. Red-winged Starlings, with…well, you guessed it. The various species of glossy starling, every one of them a mass of shimmering, iridescent blue-purple-green plumage. Or the Violet-backed Starling, with the gloriously coloured male contrasted dramatically with his dowdy, streaky mate.

Every one of them was worth looking very carefully at – I wonder if, living in South Africa, you’d ever take such gorgeous birds for granted?

When I got home, the first thing I saw as I waited in the Heathrow bus station was a strutting, fearless Starling, snatching food scraps from among the luggage trolleys and heedless, hurrying feet. In the normal course of events, I realised, I’d probably have given it no more than a brief glance.

Sometimes, though, lack of sleep or the energy to do anything other than sit and wait the long half-hour for your bus is a genuine blessing. And however familiar or seemingly mundane we’ve let them become, our own (European) Starlings can hold their heads up high next to their more exotic counterparts. This one did, quite literally, showing off that bright yellow bill and a plumage that, in a more poetic moment, I might have described as countless stars reflected in a puddle of petrol and water (I’ll settle for a wonderful sheen of purples, blues and greens, covered with white spots).

Even in their duller but spottier winter plumage, Starlings are truly striking birds, but at this time of year, they really deserve a second glance, and a third, and a fourth. They’re a taste of the tropics, anything but a Little Brown Job.

Remember that, next time you hear one launch into its extraordinary mash-up of a song. Find out more about Lawson’s Safaris at www.lawsons-africa.co.za

Luke Massey’s further Fiji adventures

Original feature in the March 2012 issue of Bird Watching...

I learnt quite quickly that if I was going to be working on Fiji’s reefs and land all day every day I’d have to stop trying to keep up with the Fijians in their nightly Kava drinking sessions. Kava is the Fijian’s traditional drink. It’s a root that’s pounded into dust then mixed with water and poured into a communal drinking pot, a tanoa. You’re then passed a coconut shell (bilo) filled with Kava and have to drink it all in one go. The only thing I can liken it to is drinking a muddy puddle (although I’ve never tried that!).

For the first week I’d see birds when I wasn’t even looking for them. Every afternoon I played rugby with the locals (dodging the land crab holes) and it wasn’t uncommon for five or six Lesser Frigatebirds to pass over while the Mynahs and Spotted Doves would be found foraging among the chickens around the pitch.

Due to the threat of drought we weren’t allowed to use the toilet for wee breaks and instead had to make do with the surrounding bushes. At my usual site, White-collared Kingfishers, Slaty Monarchs and Vanikoro Broadbills all spied on me, making my usual boring toilet break somewhat more interesting, and a Fan-tailed Cuckoo would call to me from the undergrowth with its almost snore-like whistle.

Fattening up

On my first visit to Fiji, I’d immediately noticed just how friendly the people were, always wanting to help, show you stuff and, it seems, fatten you up! Talking with the locals on Moturiki was a great help. However, sometimes it was hard to communicate our priorities to them – they couldn’t understand why we wanted to find these animals.

Finally, we had a breakthrough. After weeks of searching in the bush for the scarce Banded Iguana, I was talking to two of the village elders about the Vokai (the Fijian name for iguanas) when they told me to follow them.

A short walk from where we were, they took me to a tiny tree metres off the path, just behind the village shop. Within minutes we had a stunning, albeit tailless, male Banded Iguana in our hands, after finding it disguised perfectly among the leaves.

One afternoon, the local kids brought me a Polynesian Triller tied to a stick. They’d found it flying around their kitchen, doing it’s best at pest control.

However, they quickly eclipsed their Triller find, appearing at the door one evening with yet another stick, this time adorned with a dazed and confused Tongan Fruit Bat. They proudly told me how they’d hurled stones at it, knocking it from the sky, and thought that instead of eating it (apparently they taste like chicken) they’d donate it to my temporary menagerie.

Two days later, after eating all of our banana supplies and stinking out my bedroom, the much livelier than on its arrival fruit bat was set free, but not before demolishing another banana!

Wader fest!

When I wasn’t taking care of the various creatures that were put in my care, I was snorkelling on the pristine reef, taking surveys of what was about, dodging sea kraits (a type of snake), reef sharks and stingrays or climbing trees looking for hidden skinks and tramping around the island barefoot in search of birds.

I had my main wader fest after one of the dumbest ideas I came up with. After a night in which we definitely each consumed 50 bowls of Kava, the traditional root-based drink, leaving us and the rest of the village with very sore stomachs, and I’d stumbled straight into a disguised tree stump, leaving my little toe swollen and a beautiful shiny purple colour, my friend and I, and one of the Fijians, decided we wanted to conquer the island.

Packing bottles of water, a few samosas and my trusty 7D camera we headed off at 8am on a 10-mile round trip, with the aim of visiting all 10 villages on the island.

The one thing I did forget were my shoes. Barefoot walking… with a bad toe… for 10 miles… on a mixture of surfaces… is not fun and my feet complained for days afterwards, but, after hours of walking, on reaching the penultimate village from home we found a wader lover’s dream – the tide had left exposing miles of gooey mud.

The expanse was dotted with mangrove trees and an array of waders. Wandering Tattlers, Ruddy Turnstones, Bar-tailed Godwits and Pacific Golden Plovers moved about, feasting on what the mud had to offer. Among them I was surprised to see Fiji’s very own heron success story (much like our Little Egret invaders), the White-faced Heron. Feeding in large groups, they have only appeared in Fiji in recent years but are going from strength to strength!

They obviously like it here – and it’s not hard to see why.

Birding by barge

Note: This is an archived article from the previous Bird Watching website...

If you’re a long-term reader of Bird Watching, you might remember that, a little over a year ago, Mark Nowers of the RSPB detailed the delights on offer on the organisation’s Birds by Barge trips, on the Stour Estuary.

This bird-rich area, forming part of the Suffolk-Essex border, gets rather overshadowed by some of the well-known birding hotspots further north in East Anglia, but Mark made a good case for it being a real hidden gem.

A couple of weeks ago, I found out for myself. I was at Mistley Marine, just outside Manningtree, a little after dawn. The sky was clear, the sun bright, the wind light and the river perfectly calm, and although we were wrapped up like polar explorers against the first real blast of winter cold, the prospects were good.

Let’s get it straight, though – when I say barge, I don’t mean the sort of narrowboat-style affair you might have in mind. The Sailing Barge Victor is a large, wide-bottomed motorised vessel, of the type which chugged to and from the maltings of East Anglia in days gone by. It’s got a comfortable, roomy cabin/galley, and it’s a very stable platform from which to watch birds, or digiscope or photograph them.

We were picking out Curlews, Redshanks and Black-tailed Godwits on the nearby mudflats even before we’d left our berth, and of course it’s those food-rich expanses that make an estuary like this so important for wintering birds, with around 30,000 spending the coldest months of the year on the Stour.

Throughout the trip, we were provided with expert commentary and direction from Mark and RSPB volunteers – their wealth of knowledge about not only the birds, but also the landscape and its history (The Royal Hospital School, on the Suffolk bank, is hugely impressive), made the time pass all too quickly.

But what about those birds? Well, there were plenty of Red-breasted Mergansers, always a thrill for a Midlands-based landlubber like myself, and we got good views too of a small raft of Common Scoters, another sea-duck I see far too rarely. Add a few Pintails, lots of dark-bellied Brent Geese, Goldeneyes, and a noisy, whistling flock of Wigeon, plus all the commoner ducks, and we were off to a flyer.

Waders are another family of birds I see too little of, living where I do, but we easily added Lapwing, Avocet and Oystercatcher to the species mentioned earlier, while some careful scanning revealed occasional Grey Plovers dotted along the shore, as usual striking a rather bad-tempered, anti-social pose. Meanwhile, small, very fast-moving flocks of small waders skimming the water before coming to rest among their fellows revealed themselves as Dunlin and Knot.

It’s no longer a surprise to see Buzzards soaring over the East of England, however implausible it would have seemed not so long ago, and sure enough once the day had warmed a little, there they were over the Suffolk shore, spiralling above the woods. Kestrels hovered here and there, but if it was a slight disappointment not to see a Peregrine or Merlin, it was made up for by a Marsh Harrier quartering the fields and mudflats, occasionally rising above the skyline for a more wide-ranging look.

Quite the best thing about birding from any boat, though, is that the birds let you get much closer than you might otherwise manage. Red-necked Grebe was a nice addition to the list, but our real highlight was a Great Northern Diver which allowed us to approach relatively close – certainly closer than any I’ve ever seen before.

The same could be said about a Shag on one of the buoys – the quiet, stately progress of the barge seems to put the birds at their ease, making life much easier for birdwatchers.

We were sustained throughout by as much tea and coffee as the cold demanded, and the breakfast baps were just what were needed to fuel what turned out to be four-and-a-half hours of great birding.

As we reached Mistley again, and waited for the water to rise a little so that we could get into our berth, we added Turnstone to the list, plus Grey Wagtails on the maltings on the shore, and a couple of Kingfishers skimming low over the main channel. Our final total, 47 species, was evidence of a fine, and unusual, morning’s birding.

Price is £37.50 per person, which includes tea, coffee and breakfast in a bun. Children must be accompanied by adults, and booking is essential. Places are still available on a few of the regular sailings in January. You can find more details here.